Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Worlds collide in Penumbra Theatre's excellent new production of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Beyond the obvious clashes between African-American musicians and their white (though by their accents, recently immigrated) producers and managers, there are tensions among the musicians themselves: between educated and uneducated, between making music for the boss and striking out on their own, and between the traditional blues that Rainey plays and a newer groove that will fuel decades of popular music. And though legendary blues singer Ma Rainey is in the title (and performed as a force of nature by Jevetta Steele), it is the young trumpeter Levee (a tremendous turn by James T. Alfred) who serves as the play's crux. Alfred's character lives on the edge, dreaming of creating his own music and becoming a star in his own right instead of just following behind Rainey. During the course of a long, chaotic recording session, we learn of the pain that lives in the center of Levee's experience. The years of racism, Jim Crow laws, and open hostility have ground on each of the musicians, but Levee's rage finally comes to a head, and, as is common in Wilson's 20th Century Cycle, the violence is directed within his own "family." Alfred brings out multiple dimensions of his character, showing us a person who is desperate for a better, fulfilling life but who is dragged down by past tragedies. The balance of the cast puts in strong performances, and Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy's direction serves the performances and story well. While the action flags a bit during the long first act, it pays off with a stunning monologue from Alfred, a moment that's repeated near the end of the second act. $24-$60. 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis; 612.377.2224. Through March 6